Wednesday, December 26, 2012

"26 Angels"

I had planned to write a Christmas blog post, or maybe even two. The stress of holiday preparations, perhaps. Creating family traditions, definitely. That post was under way.

But then a severely troubled young man with access to his mother's cache of guns unleashed his fury on twenty-six innocent lives at the purest of places: an elementary school. Twenty of the Newtown, Connecticut, victims were children -- first graders, in fact, just like my son Charlie.

Like the rest of America, I am heartbroken. These were six and seven years olds just beginning their lives. They were playing soccer, drawing pictures, building with Legos, drumming, baking cookies, and buying toys for needy kids. They were in their first year of Daisy Scouts and Little League. They adored their parents, helped their younger siblings, and loved school. Looking at my son, I cannot fathom the depth of the pain the families are experiencing right now and during the Christmas season to boot!

Connecticut is my home state. I grew up only thirty-five miles south of Newtown -- in the very same county, by the way. So I have wanted to help. Well, this week I got my chance.

As part of my ongoing networking effort on behalf of my older son, I joined a Facebook page on Friday for parents of child actors in the area. Immediately, I saw a notice seeking children for a tribute video for the victims' families that would be posted on YouTube. All monies raised from the video would be donated to build and beautify a memorial park at the site of the shootings. I contacted the video's director, and Christopher was accepted for the project that evening. Less than two days later, we headed to Manchester, NH, for the audio recording in a studio atop an old mill building. And today the video was shot in the Andover, MA, High School auditorium.

My eyes welled up with tears as I listened to the brave boys and girls assembled from across New England sing the chorus to 26 Angels, a song written and performed by Justin Cohen and accompanied by five other musicians. Boston filmmaker Ben Proulx directed the children as they represented the twenty youngest victims. Each child sang while holding a sign dedicated to a Sandy Hook Elementary School student.

Christopher decorated the sign honoring Chase Kowalski, a blond-haired and blue-eyed boy just full of life. By all accounts, he was an absolute dynamo -- very much like Charlie. He loved watching the New York Yankees, riding his bike and a four-wheeled quad, being a Tiger Scout, playing baseball, swimming in a lake, and enjoying the outdoors in any and every capacity. When he was six, he won his first-ever triathlon. Yes, triathlon! If Chase wasn't a star, I don't know who is.

Now he and his equally beautiful and impressive classmates are angels forever.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Psychologically Protecting Kids: One Size Does Not Fit All

The most important job of a parent is to protect his or her child in every way possible, both physically and psychologically. The latter half of this duty has been severely put to the test by Friday's horrific acts of violence at a Connecticut elementary school.

Should parents tell their children about the mass killings of adults and first-graders? If they don't, will the kids hear about the tragedy at school from friends and become afraid that the same thing might happen to them? If parents do, will the children grow too fearful to return to school? It's been hard to know what to do.

In my case, I had some precedents. I had to put my nearly fifteen-year-old bichon frise down when Christopher was three. Sparkplug had become blind, had fallen off my back deck, and could no longer control his bowels. He was having frequent accidents on the carpet where Charlie was learning to crawl. Sparky was in bad shape, so I had to make a tough decision. Since Christopher naturally adored Sparky and had always lived with him, I needed to address the subject of death with my preschooler. I was torn about how to approach the matter, but then I found a beautiful children's book called Dog Heaven by Cynthia Rylant. It describes a joyful place where dogs live after they have left Earth. Showing the book to Christopher was the perfect way to let my son know that his precious doggie was gone. Later, I occasionally discovered Christopher looking at the book on his own. He was missing Sparkplug and seeking comfort.

A couple of years later, I was faced with another dilemma when a friend of his and Charlie's from preschool died from a brain tumor. This boy, only five at the time, was in between my sons in terms of age. So when we had C over once to our house, the three-way playdate worked really well. I was devastated by the news and again stymied as to how to handle it with my boys. After much thought, I decided not to tell my sons. C lived in the city next door and had graduated to kindergarten there, so he was no longer in school with Christopher and Charlie at the time he died. He had basically moved off our radar screen by virtue of living in a different community and attending a different school. It's one of the most common rules in the book: You simply lose touch to one extent or another when your commonality (in this case, the preschool) is no longer there. My boys knew he had gone to kindergarten, and they had plenty of other friends to occupy their time. I could avoid the situation. They were far too young to learn of a peer and friend having died, I felt. Hence, I kept my mouth shut, and it never became an issue . . . other than eliciting from the preschool director and her assistant assurances that C's death would not be spoken of at all in front of the children.

This time around I had several factors to weigh in making my decision about what to do. And, yes, I did make a decision that I followed through on just tonight. As the Newtown incident happened on a Friday, I (and other parents) had all weekend to mull the situation over before sending our little ones off to school tomorrow morning.

First, I thought about Christopher. He is a nine-year-old third-grader with a broad understanding of the world as well as past and current events. He knows John F. Kennedy was shot and killed while president. He knows terrorists masterminded and carried out the deadly 9/11 attacks. He knows Michael Jackson died from prescription drugs. He knows about the day-after-Christmas earthquake/tsunami, the Japanese earthquake/tsunami/nuclear disaster, and the H.M.S. Bounty replica that he toured on September 1 going down in Hurricane Sandy. He knows about the big news events because he has seen or heard about them on TV or from me.

Christopher is the little man in my house. He is smart, mature, sensitive, and grounded. From a very young age, he has shown interest in, well, just about everything. I made a conscious decision not to talk down to him or baby him when he was clearly beyond that. I exposed him to Harry Potter at age five, and he immediately loved hearing me read the books to him. We watched the films as soon as they came out, and now we own every single one. I took him to Hugo, and he wants to see Lincoln next.

Knowing Christopher as I do, I felt strongly that he would be able to handle the news of Newtown, Connecticut, with just the right amount of concern, sensitivity, and anger -- and, yes, I believe it is completely appropriate for a mature third-grader to feel, and be instructed to feel, anger toward senseless gun violence. I resolved to tell him. But when? And would he have already heard the news?

Christopher was performing in a holiday show all weekend. Five performances in four days, to be exact. I needed to find the time to tell him, but I also needed to avoid rattling him before he went on stage. Then there was the issue of all the other children in the show, most of whom were older than my son and more likely to have learned about the carnage. Would Christopher overhear kids talking about it? Or might he stumble upon the news at his brother's well-attended basketball clinic Saturday morning?

Fortunately, neither scenario panned out, paving the way for me to break the news early tonight when I took him aside in his bedroom after returning from the last performance. I didn't want to upset his sleep if I could help it, so I spoke to him sooner rather than later. This was the best I could do under the circumstances because explaining the situation tomorrow morning right before sending him off to school, of all places, would obviously be far from ideal!

Well, I am relieved to report that Christopher handled our talk just as I expected he would -- and even asked me afterward if we could drive down to Newtown to support the grieving families.

What a great boy! I am so proud of him.

Next up: Charlie, my tough-as-nails six year old. Even though he is only twenty-nine months Christopher's junior, I couldn't simply lump them together by sitting them down for a one-size-fits-all family explanation. I felt I must respect the fact that Charlie is younger and, therefore, less mature in every way than his brother. The child shooting victims were, tragically, Charlie's age -- one of them only three days older, in fact. So how would it feel to hear that your exact peers in the state next door were gunned down in their own elementary school? Downright terrifying and confusing, I would imagine.

Thus, while Charlie also has had early exposure to Harry Potter, the fate of the H.M.S. Bounty -- I wanted both boys to know because it was personal to us -- and some other rather grown-up or unfortunate real-life stories, the slaughtering of these sweet innocents in the Nutmeg State crosses the line of being WAY TOO MUCH for Charlie or any other first-grader to hear about. If my son happens to learn something from someone else, I will deal with it with him at that time. But the principal of his school has assured parents via e-mail that no staff members will provide information about the situation with students.

Wise move.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Sayonara, False Threat Queen!

I've turned over a new leaf. I'm playing hardball. I've said goodbye to the False Threat Queen. That's right! No more giving in to bad behavior.

Now I can't say I won't allow certain privileges, like use of a Nintendo DSi XL, that help mitigate a particular situation -- in fact, I have already done just that since changing my ways -- but I will say NO to the big treats the misbehaving child doesn't deserve.

Let me explain. Last Saturday I was planning to take my boys to Rhode Island for a fun overnight with friends. We hadn't been away for a night since the summer, so we were way overdue. We always have a great time with these people but, due to distance and busy schedules, do not get to see one another often at all. Until a month ago, we hadn't managed a face-to-face since the end of June 2011 when Christopher, then seven, was cast as an extra in "Moonrise Kingdom." Our friends put us up for one night as we needed to spend two days in their state while Chris got fitted for his costume, was given a '60s-style haircut, and shot his scene in a Newport church. Then, with schools closed on Election Day last month, we rendezvoused in Boston at the Museum of Science. The visit lasted only a couple of hours because we had to hightail it to Gloucester (one-plus hours away) for Christopher's afternoon holiday-show rehearsal. Not time enough to get through either the special SHIPWRECK!: Pirates and Treasure or Mammoths and Mastodons exhibits.

Argh.

Yet these people are much more than friends to us. They are family. Not the family I was born into but the family I created when I chose to become a mother in an unconventional way. My friends' children are half-siblings of my boys through their anonymous-donor father. S is one month to the day older than Christopher, and N is two years to the day younger than six-and-a-half-year-old Charlie. (March 25th is quite a milestone day, indeed, as it is also the anniversary of my mother's death.)

The kids get along great, and I am very fond of their two fun moms. If I met them in my town or in any other way, I would want them to be my friends. I consider myself very lucky to have them in my modern family.

Since not all of the moms are on board yet with disclosing to the kids our connection to one another, we just refer to each other as "friends." It has been tough for me to keep the secret from my boys, but I have parceled out hints. Christopher and Charlie know they have half-siblings scattered across the U.S., and they know they have met one family of them. I haven't revealed which one. "It could be a family in our town, a family we know out of town, or a family we know out of state," I've said cryptically.

Then I have asked each boy to guess which family it might be, and they both guess this family. Perhaps it is because I have described this family as "special" to us. Perhaps it is because this family, like ours, has no father in it. Or perhaps it is because my smart boys sense a different kind of kinship with the daughter and son. Indeed, part of our enjoyment in spending time together is watching the children interact with one another -- how they immediately fall into good-pal mode despite not seeing one another for a long time and how Charlie (my rambunctious one) leads N in fun, boyish physical activities like a sweet big brother.

It is beautiful to watch the four of them together.

Now in order for me to make the ninety-minute trip down to their house in Rhode Island and return the next day, I need to feel fairly rested. The problem is: I frequently don't feel this way. I suffered from chronic fatigue syndrome for about four and a half years, so I have to pace myself. Or I will seriously regret it.

When it comes to the Rhode Island family, however, I have pushed myself beyond my limit because I haven't wanted to cancel plans once they are finally made. But last Saturday, a new problem arose: it was SNOWING! The first real snow of the season, though it didn't accumulate in our area and barely stuck on the ground at all. I even forgot to pick up a handful, and now I've lost my chance. Driving in the snow is NOT one of my favorite activities, especially at the very beginning of the season when I (and everyone else) are out of practice. Still, I was willing to do it that day because I needed the happy break that visiting the family always provides. I envisioned watching the daughter play basketball then going back to their house for a pizza, beer, and salad dinner; relaxing with good conversation, heaps of laughter, and a child-friendly animated movie -- it was "Despicable Me" last year -- and retiring for the night with my boys on the carpet of their renovated basement floor. (I like camping, whether it's outdoors or indoors.) In the morning, we would all eat a big, leisurely breakfast then leave in time to make it back to Gloucester for that show rehearsal at noon again.

Given the snow, I needed to be EXTRA rested for the drive. I expressed that sentiment to the boys that morning. In other words, DON'T GIVE ME ANY DRAMA! But Charlie The Younger lives in his own world, so he ignored my plea and launched into his usual routine of tackling Christopher in too rough a manner. The protests erupted; the tears flowed; and the retaliatory fighting ensued, prompting more protests and tears. And it escalated. I got mad and separated the boys.

I CAN'T STAND this behavior of Charlie's. It is my single biggest problem with the boys when it comes to family dynamics. It would be one thing if Christopher liked the roughhousing. Then it would only be a matter of making sure they kept it under control so no one got hurt. But that is not what I have on my hands. I have two boys pretty close in age who are opposites in terms of their personalities and interests. I am perpetually being put in the position of having to referee these skirmishes, physically break apart the boys (not easy to do without reinjuring my fifty-one-year-old back), and punish the offending party (Charlie, always Charlie).

Then there's Christopher. He also HATES it when Charlie invades his space and won't leave him alone. He runs to his room (well, their room) and starts to scream, "I hate you! I wish I didn't have a brother! I can't go on like this!"

The truth is: NEITHER ONE OF US CAN GO ON LIKE THIS.

And that is why I decided on Saturday that the buck stops here. I was going to set an example. I would lay down my iron fist. I canceled the trip to the Ocean State. I announced my decision in the car on the way home from Charlie's basketball clinic and the bank. "As much as I wanted to go to Rhode Island, I agree with you that you have to cancel the trip," said Christopher, who is mature way beyond his nine years.

"Snow, snow, snow," said Charlie, trying not to take responsibility for his behavior and instead blame my decision on my not wanting to drive in the snow.

NOTHIN' DOIN'. I was not about to let Charlie believe for ONE SECOND that he wasn't the cause of the change in plans, "NO, Charlie, YOU ruined our weekend with your bad behavior this morning. I would have driven in the snow if I had felt rested enough. But you WORE ME OUT before 10 a.m. You made it IMPOSSIBLE for me to be able to make the drive," I said.

"Snow, snow, snow," Charlie kept muttering.

Frustrated, depleted, and depressed, I informed the boys back at the house that I was off duty for the rest of the day, and they had to entertain themselves without fighting -- in the house. Yes, they could use technology. It was a very quiet afternoon and evening as the severity of what Charlie had done sunk in. I retreated to Facebook to reach out to my friends, and they responded in full force with praise for my decision. It seems it is very common among mothers to threaten to cancel impending fun plans when a child is misbehaving . . . but it is equally common to fail to follow through because the parent wants the fun plans to happen, too! One friend summed the problem up by calling herself the False Threat Queen. Then she gave me permission to borrow the catchy moniker. I was very grateful to be able to communicate with my friends under our stuck-in-the-house circumstances. They made me feel much better, though I by no means felt good.

As the afternoon progressed, photos of an event occurring in our town began to pop up on my Facebook page. It was Santa's arrival by boat. He was accompanied into the harbor by stand-up paddleboarding elves. I kid you not. Only a quaint coastal town such as ours could dream up such a unique Christmas festivity. Well, I couldn't exactly reward a badly behaving child with a trip to the park to meet Santa now, could I? Certainly not. If I'd had more time between returning from the bank and the start of the event, I might have thought to call the mothers of some of Christopher's friends to ask if they could take my obedient son. But I was still processing what went down that morning. My head wasn't clear enough for me to come up with an alternative plan. Besides, I didn't know how Charlie would take it if Christopher was allowed to leave the house. He might have staged some kind of a revolt -- a possibility I was not willing to risk given the fact that things had calmed down since we'd gotten home.

Instead, I made a point of showing Charlie the Facebook photos. "See? This is what we ALSO couldn't go to because of your bad behavior," I said. Charlie is a tough kid. Looking at the photos did not faze him, at least not outwardly. It was only after I'd scrolled through quite a few that he finally pulled the red blanket on his lap over his head. For his part, Christopher continued to support my efforts to drive the point home with Charlie that what he did had consequences and would not be tolerated in the future.

It has been five days since I canceled the trip to Rhode Island, and I have to say Charlie's behavior has improved considerably. Just to be sure my clamping down has made an impact, however, I have followed it up with two more actions designed to keep him in line.

The first is setting up an Elf on the Shelf in the family room, the room where we spend most of our time. According to Christmas tradition, the slender, red-suited male doll watches the behavior of children in the home by day and reports back to Santa by night. This is how he knows who's naughty and who's nice. When the elf returns from the North Pole each morning, he plants himself in a new location in the home.

We have named our elf Larry. Charlie's choice was Mike but -- in a rare and most-welcome show of giving in (good boy, Charlie!) -- he agreed to Christopher's pick, which was the name Lily on "Modern Family" gave her baby brother when it looked like her two dads Cam and Mitch would be getting one via a surrogate. Christopher and I, of course, love "Modern Family" and watch it religiously together every week.

The second additional step I have taken is to make a clear, bold sign delineating the house rules. The collection of NOs, now prominently displayed on a family-room wall, covers the gamut of Charlie's bad behavior at home from just-for-the-heck-of-it screaming to unwanted roughhousing that leads into fighting in all its various forms both verbal and physical. The sign will remain on the wall permanently as a constant reminder of what is not allowed.

Something tells me Larry will be sticking around through the off season as well!